marcel duchamp, a barrel, and dutch pickles on npr


I am reminded of Marcel Duchamp: a readymade.  You know the story of the most famous one, right?  To make a point about art and modern culture in 1917, he acquired an ordinary porcelain urinal, placed it business end up, signed it R. Mutt, and declared it art.  Art not just for the eyes; instead, it was meant to question the very notion of seeing art, to stimulate the senses with a much wider range of stimuli — even repugnance and a reminder of unpleasant, necessary truths.

How is a herring barrel in a history museum similar?  This one, the preserver preserved at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, is quite handsome, actually: sturdy, rotund, golden brown, made antiseptic in its lit vitrine, but grimed and bumped and nicked as it traveled around the globe.  Who knows: did it go from the Baltic seaboard to the New World, filled with the salted herring that nourished the sailors and enriched the burghers? Did a slave from Ghana scratch a doodle into the side during a moment’s rest, or was it kicked by an angry Chinese tradesman upon a sour deal with an unscrupulous VOC rep? Or did it get rolled around the streets of the Albert Cuyp market by Jewish vendors eking out a living in fishy carts circling the city?

And how did this ordinary, workaday object become extraordinary?  Survival alone? (Hey, who could knock THAT.) Or did the herring work some artistic magic?  Did the salt slowly, batch after batch, mellow out the rough-hewn lumber planed and strapped into barrel shape?  Did the artiste (or machine?) who penned the flourishing ‘H’ of ‘Haring Ton’ feel pride in that specimen?  Did he (it) squint with a critical assessment, cough to clear some inky dust out of his (its) throat?  When we ask these types of questions, we don’t just see it as a barrel, or even just as a historical artifact.  We appreciate it for its singularity, beauty even.  And then we think gosh, it must

herring with pickle and onion
Herring with pickle and onion at the Vlaardingse Haringhandel stand, Albert Cuyp Market, Amsterdam

…smell.  I’ve got good news and bad news today.  The good news is that my piece for NPR’s The Salt appeared this morning on a topic very much related to this herring barrel: Dutch pickles and trade.  See it here!

The bad news is that something weird happened with my images, and the resolution is too poor to accompany the article.  I’ll figure out what went wrong, but in the meanwhile, I wanted to share some of the wonderful pickles I captured in Amsterdam at fourth generation pickler Fred Ooms’ de Leeuw Pickles and renowned Dutch-Surinamese caterer Mavis Hofwijk’s Surinaams Buffet Catering.  I’m so thrilled to have met Fred and his wife Monique, and their charming son, and Mavis and her charming daughter Candice, all thanks to artist and scholar Karin Vaneker.

Amsterdam onions at de Leeuw Pickles, Amsterdam
The beautiful colors that inspired Vincent van Gogh at de Leeuw Pickles
Mavis Hofwijk macerates a genoise cake at Surinaams Buffet Catering
Mavis’ mixed pickles
Mavis’ marvelous brew (all the vegetables spend time in this spa to become pickles)
Special spiced grape pickles for the holidays at de Leeuw Pickles
Rollmops at de Leeuw Pickles — herring wrapped around a pickle? No complaints here

baby, it’s hot chocolate inside

IMG_3458IMG_3490 IMG_3476Definitely a day to cozy up to your couch and drink some hot chocolate.  I wish I were back in Amsterdam, where I had the good fortune to meet Kees Raat, master chocolatier and proprietor of the award-winning Metropolitan Deli, a sweets shop dedicated to stretching the chocolate imagination as far as it can go.  His hot chocolate, a thick, dark cup that blows away the competition in the land of hot chocolate, is exquisite — almost savory and velvet-textured, caressing your tongue and throat as you take tiny sips.

IMG_3460There he is, serving me up my cup of hot cocoa and another customer a waffle at the same time!  What service!

Unlike Willy Wonka and his slave labor, Raat sources cocoa beans from Cuba directly, seeking sustainable practices and the best quality.  He then grinds and cooks down the fermented cocoa beans to make his own chocolate.  I’d never seen chocolate making from bean to bar, and it was kind of thrilling, so simple yet so difficult.

IMG_3452IMG_3453 IMG_3465  IMG_3473IMG_3486IMG_3478 The shop sells everything from chocolate letters to cayenne-spicy langues de chat to ice cream (trompe la langue Campari blood orange, stroopwaffel or “nuts and glory”) to cocoa beer to cocoa lotion to poffertje pancakes, cakes, waffles, and waffle cones.  And it’s all packed into a tiny, narrow space just off Dam Square that’s filled with delighted customers.  He also holds workshops and gives talks on all the troublesome and delightful nuances of the chocolate trade.

But if you’re on your own austerity programme for the new year, might I suggest another treat served up for free at the shop?  I’d never publicly endorse this kind of celebration, and I prefer my own nose to remain snowy white, but there’s always the low-cal version of hot chocolate:

IMG_3471Stay warm, Eugeniuses, however you can!

going dutch



As those of you keeping up on my whereabouts on my Facebook page know, I’ve been out of the country again, visiting Amsterdam and meeting local folks about the food scene there.  I went to do research on still life paintings for the article I’ve been writing on the curious renaming of molecular gastronomy as “modernist cuisine.”  I also managed to pick up an assignment from NPR to write about Dutch pickles, a project I pursued with all my might.

I’ll tell you more about both of these adventures in another post, but I just wanted to share a few photos and notables.


To get it out of the way: no, I didn’t partake in Amsterdam’s legendary consumables.  Not really my scene.  But it was interesting to see the effects of the tourist trade on the permissive drug culture and vice versa. I highly recommend the underwear.  Highly.

Amsterdam is a compelling city, and I really was taken with it.  What they say about bicycles is true — they’re everywhere — but what they don’t tell you is that they are massive steel-framed tanks, and one is at great risk of being bulldozed if one isn’t careful! The canals in the winter, especially in the snow, are gorgeous, and there’s so much to see walking along the water, including decrepit old houseboats, swans, sex shops, and old delis turned into antique shops. I was very fortunate to have as a guide the artist and independent food scholar Karin Vaneker, who taught me so much about Dutch culture in the few short days we had together.

I happened to be in The Netherlands on December 5, which is the day Sinterklaas drops off presents with his cadre of servants called “Zwarte Piets” or Black Peters. (Sinterklaas, the tall white man with the beard, is so busy around Christmas with America that it needs to be earlier in Holland, I suppose.)  To Americans sensitive to our own colonial past and the racist minstrel acts of the nineteenth century, it’s very very difficult to see a bunch of blue-eyed white people in blackface and Moorish IMG_3389costume dancing around and singing as anything but horrific.  Many Dutch (including Karin), however, maintain the tradition isn’t racist, and that Zwarte Piet is not even of African descent — he’s dirty from going down the chimney.  There’s a good discussion about the debate and growing opposition to the tradition here. Nevertheless, it was kind of sweet to hear Christmas carols in Dam Square and see the children so excited, and to get gifted myself by a Zwarte Piet distributing handfuls of tiny spice cookies to commuters on a local train far outside of the tourist area.

The food in Amsterdam was definitely the most international of all the cities I’ve visited in Europe.  In places like Italy or France, it’s often difficult to find meals that aren’t closely related to the locality.  But in Amsterdam, I had a hard time finding Dutch food in restaurants and instead opted for Middle Eastern, Surinamese, Indonesian, etc. I can’t complain — it was great!

IMG_3880I had the opportunity to visit two street markets.  At the Albert Cuyp market, the largest street market in Holland (and over a hundred years old), I saw unquestionably the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen at a stand: pure white and glistening.  The flesh looked like the interior of some creamy white fruit, a fresh lychee maybe? Or whipped lard, for those of you who dream of such delights.  And there were cockles and mussels, alive alive-o, and scallops in huge shells, and smoked mackerel with skin so golden from the processing that it glowed…and these beautiful thin smoked eels, paling.   We ate salted herring with raw onions and pickles, and little fried fish nuggets.  Following that snack with poffertjes, the tiny sweet pancakes everyone loves, seemed a little indelicate, so I opted for tastes of three delicious aged cured Spanish hams instead.IMG_3868IMG_3992


The Dutch and I both love dark, spicy licorice, so I was very happy to browse all the flavors available in the markets. I had always thought that the shapes were the only difference, but they say each one has a different taste. I settled on novelty flavors to take home — black straps that look like a belt, and little replicas of the famous Belgian statue of a boy peeing, the Mannekin Pis.  Haven’t tried the latter yet, and I hope it’s not pee flavored.  A delicious meal at a charming little bistro called Restaurant Greetje ended with a licorice crème brûlée, topped with a traditional licorice root stick (above, at a Christmas festival booth at Haarlem).  The waiter told us that children liked to chew on the sticks, so I did likewise.  First time I’ve ever gnawed on a stick at a restaurant, and hopefully not the last.


And I can’t forget the cheese.  Depicted in its art, Dutch cheese is something to be remembered.  If you ever get a chance to eat the caramel-rich aged gouda, don’t hestitate.  But it was also very difficult to say no to the Stilton soaked in port that I saw in an incredible cheese shop next to the fabulous de Leeuw delicatessen.  We opted for Dutch chocolate cheesecake instead.

Next up:  the amazing Mavis, Suriname caterer to the stars and Dutch pickles!

culinaria eugenius in transit

Somewhat miraculously, I made it.  I can’t even begin to describe the clusterf@#$ flying internationally this year has turned out to be.  But I made it.  I’m in Prague.  My bag wisely decided to remain in Seattle, though.

Some good moments:

The flight from PDX to SEA was on the really cool new Q400 “greener” planes.  I guess the propeller makes them conserve fuel.  I had a smack dab in the middle view of it, and the whirring was mesmerizing.  Plus, I could get great shots of Seattle.

And by the way, green Horizon, thanks for being the only exemplary leg of the journey.  Props to you not only for the plane but for a free goddamn glass of wine from a local winery and those pretzels-studded-with-ranch-rice-crackers that I like.

And thanks to you, too, Amsterdam.  Your airport does not suck, even with the tiff we had and the long run from one end to the other, dodging obstacles and customs officials.  I couldn’t have been happier when you rerouted me electronically (even on a different airline)! And you gave me a 50-euro voucher for another KLM flight, plus 10 free euros worth of lox roll, goldfish crackers, and a nice glass of chablis at Bubbles Seafood and Wine Bar.  Plus, I really had fun browsing the seeds in your tulip shop.  And…

O hai delicious gouda cheese crackers and salty, spicy, black-as-used-up coal licorice bricks called Old Timers Salmiak Klinkers. I agree that having a big delicatessen in the middle of the airport, complete with a giant wall of cheese and sausage and softly smoked and cured fish, is a great idea.  Wish I could have bought more.  The salmiak klinkers DELIVERED.

I’m not nearly as fond of the Your Luggage is Sleepless in Seattle toiletries pack provided by Czech Airlines.  Only in Europe would you find such a thing without shampoo or soap.  And the little bottle with a navy cap is tiny roll on deodorant, made in China as a product of France.  No offense, but two countries not exactly known for their deodorant.  I will be able to take off my makeup (silver pack) and shave (razor and cream) to my heart’s content, though.

Today: shopping!  More adventures to come.  Wish me luck.